Fed to Buy Municipal, Some Riskier Debt as Part of Expansive Programs

The Federal Reserve said it could pump $2.3 trillion into the economy through new and expanded programs it announced on Monday, ramping up its already-extensive efforts to help companies and state and local governments suffering financially amid the coronavirus.

The central bank announced that it will use Treasury Department funds recently authorized by Congress to buy municipal bonds and expand corporate bond-buying programs to include some lower-rated and riskier debt. The Fed also rolled out a highly-anticipated business lending program that targets midsize companies, including those not eligible under a Small Business Administration loan program.

The package pushes the Fed far beyond anything it attempted in the 2008 financial crisis, and dramatically expands its already significant efforts to cushion the economy and calm markets, which have included money market interventions and an unlimited bond-buying campaign. The Fed had previously rolled out about $500 billion worth of emergency lending programs, so this could more than quadruple the size of those programs.

“The Fed’s role is to provide as much relief and stability as we can during this period of constrained economic activity,” Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell said in the release.

Congress recently gave the Treasury Department $454 billion in funding to back up Fed emergency lending facilities, which need to be insured against losses when they have credit risk. That enabled the central bank to expand its programs, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s signoff — and to push its authorities to new limits.

The Fed’s Monday moves expand its emergency lending powers, which it uses to keep credit flowing in extreme circumstances, into new territory. It has avoided buying municipal debt and lower-rated company debt, out of concern about credit risk and to avoid picking winners and losers. But amid market disruptions, calls for Fed action in both areas have been building.

The Fed also provided details on a highly-anticipated program on Monday that could provide relief to major American employers. The central bank will buy up to $600 billion in loans through its Main Street Lending Program, with the Treasury providing $75 billion in backup. That effort will offer 4-year loans to companies that employ up to 10,000 workers, or which have less than $2.5 billion in revenues. Banks will originate the loans and retain a 5 percent share, but will then sell the remainder to the Fed.

“Firms seeking Main Street loans must commit to make reasonable efforts to maintain payroll and retain workers,” according to the announcement, and must follow restrictions on compensation, stock repurchase, and dividend restrictions set out in the recently-passed congressional package.

Its newly-announced Municipal Liquidity Facility will purchase up to $500 billion of short term notes directly from U.S. states, counties with at least 2 million residents, and cities with a population of at least one million residents, according to the Fed release.

“Eligible state-level issuers may use the proceeds to support additional counties and cities,” the Fed said. The central bank will continue monitoring municipal bond markets and “will evaluate whether additional measures are needed to support the flow of credit and liquidity to state and local governments.”

The Treasury will also ramp up its insurance on the Fed’s two corporate bond-buying programs and its so-called Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, or TALF. Those will now have $85 billion in Treasury backing as they expand. That’s in part because they are adding riskier debt: some companies that were downgraded to below investment grade after March 22, for instance, will now be eligible for Fed help.

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